Search Penny Hill Press

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Federal Land Ownership: Current Acquisition and Disposal Authorities

Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Ross W. Gorte
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

M. Lynne Corn
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

The federal government owns about 650 million acres, heavily concentrated in 12 western states. Four agencies—the National Park Service (NPS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)in the Department of Agriculture—administer about 95% of those lands.

The extent to which these four federal agencies have authority to acquire and dispose of land varies considerably. The BLM has relatively broad authority for both acquisitions and disposals under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The agency has other authorities for disposing of land, including two laws that allow the agency to retain the proceeds for subsequent land acquisition, among other purposes. By contrast, the NPS has no general authority to acquire land to create new park units nor to dispose of park lands. The USFS has authority to acquire lands only within the boundaries of a national forest. The agency has various authorities to dispose of land, but they are relatively constrained and infrequently used. The FWS has various authorities to acquire lands, but no general authority to dispose of its lands. The agency frequently uses acquisition authority under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1929, because of the availability of funding through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.

Congress also enacts legislation authorizing and governing the acquisition or disposal of particular lands. In some cases this is to provide authority where no standing authority exists, while in other cases it is to direct or facilitate land transactions.

The nature of the acquisition and disposal authorities of the four federal agencies also varies. In general, the acquisition authorities are designed to allow the four agencies to bring into federal ownership lands that many believe would benefit from federal management. Disposal authorities generally are designed to allow agencies to convey land that is no longer needed for a federal purpose or that might be chiefly valuable for another purpose. Some of the authorities specify particular circumstances where they can be used, such as the conveyance of USFS land for educational purposes.

Congress often faces questions on the adequacy of existing acquisition and disposal authorities; the nature, extent, and location of their use; and the extent of federal land ownership overall. The current acquisition and disposal authorities form the backdrop for consideration of measures to establish, modify, or eliminate authorities, or to provide for the acquisition or disposal of particular lands. Congress also addresses acquisition and disposal policy in the context of debates on the role and goals of the federal government in owning and managing land generally, and has considered broader measures to dispose of lands or to promote acquisition.

Other issues for Congress pertain to the sources and adequacy of funds for land acquisition. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the primary source of funding for land acquisition, but the FWS has the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, an account with mandatory spending authorites supported by revenue from three sources, and the BLM has authorities allowing the proceeds from land sales to be used for acquisition and other purposes. Congress has considered legislation to increase LWCF funding and make it permanent, as well as to decrease federal land holdings and direct funding from land acquisition to facility maintenance.

Date of Report: December 16, 2010
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: RL34273
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.